The most important name in Israeli wine is not Carmel, Castel, Barkan, Binyamina or even Yarden or Yatir.
The most important name in our business is Israel. Brand Israel. I will explain why.
A country’s wine image is crucial to the success of that country’s wines. Unfortunately, the image of Israeli wine is less than it could be because of the baggage we carry around. This may be distilled down to two basic problems: the K word and the P word.
Firstly, the K word. Kosher. I will never forget sitting in a restaurant in Boston confronted by a wine list the size of a telephone book (if you remember what one of those looked like!). A very formal-looking sommelier approached, wearing all sorts of badges to show his importance. I asked him if the restaurant listed any Israeli wines. He replied, “You mean like Manischewitz?” And that was from someone considered wine knowledgeable! This bad image was further underlined by my experience in doing focus groups, again in the US, when we discovered that the general public thought that kosher wine, Israeli wine and kiddush wine were interchangeable, one and the same. How hard it is explain that not all Israeli wine is kosher and not all kosher wines are Israeli.
Regrettably, kosher wine is often confused with the kiddush wine category, and Israeli wine can be infuriatingly described as “Jewish wine.”
Why can’t people taste the wine as wine and say it is good, bad or indifferent without preconceived ideas? The problem is ours, and the solution is in our hands. It is a question of product knowledge and visibility.
I personally try to avoid the K word. If someone asks if our Carmel wine is kosher, I answer, “It is kosher if you need it to be.”
My objective is to sell Israel as a quality wine-producing country, a New World wine country in one of the oldest wine producing- areas on Earth.
The other preconceived idea that constantly eats away at our image may be summed up by the letter P. In this case, I am referring to politics. Israel is seen as part of the problematic Middle East. Selling wine in Europe can entail a half-hour discussion on politics before getting to matters of aroma and bouquet. I remember standing in front of some Polish wine waiters talking wine, proud to be introducing them to a new wine region, when one of them asked, “Why should we sell Israeli wine when you massacre Palestinian children?” They did not teach me how to answer that in wine school.
However, again, the fault is ours. It is all down to brand image. Firstly, in wine we try to associate Israel with the Eastern Mediterranean, which is the cradle of the grape and wine culture. It has more wine credibility than the Middle East. Secondly, we try to distill all the qualities of modern Israel – the vitality, technology, the history, the people and the sense of place – into the wine story.
I firmly believe that Israeli wine shows Israel at its best. Thirty years ago, Israel was famous for the Jaffa orange and the kibbutz.
Today it is wine and hi-tech, but you can’t give hi-tech in a bottle as a gift from Israel! So wine is our finest ambassador, and it creates a link to biblical times, back to our very roots when wine was so important to the Jewish people. There is nothing more peaceful than planting a vineyard, and nothing that connects modern Israel with its ancient past more than making wine.
So how can we sell the good, successful parts of Israel so the K word and the P word are on the back burner? The answer is by focusing on our unique wine story.
It was for this reason that I founded Handcrafted Wines of Israel 10 years ago. It was a first attempt to get Israeli wineries to work together to market Israeli wine. It was set up with the support of Carmel Winery, and a pretty diverse list of Israeli wineries was involved. This included wineries such as Amphorae, Bazelet Hagolan, Castel, Chillag, Flam, Hamasrek, Margalit, Saslove, Tzora and Yatir. They represented every growing region, kosher and non-kosher wineries and a variety of winemakers with different backgrounds making wine in different styles.
The concept meant that generic tastings of Israeli wines were conducted, and Israel was represented at wine shows with the emphasis on marketing and merchandising the main brand.
Yet the idea folded when the government proposed setting up its own body to coordinate the efforts of individual wineries abroad. Needless to say, nothing has happened since, and Israel lags behind almost every other wine-producing country in its efforts to market wine overseas.
At the recent Vinexpo in Bordeaux, the world’s largest wine exhibition, there was only one local winery under the banner of Israel. Yet even countries that don’t immediately come to mind as wine producers, such as Uruguay, Mexico and Brazil, had large stands to market their wines.
The Israel Export Institute does make an effort. Generic tastings are held every so often. The last one was held in New York.
Fifteen Israeli wineries took part. They have also produced a booklet under the slogan “Wines of Israel – Mediterranean Inspiration,” which lists 30 Israeli wineries. There is also an introduction about Israeli wine.
All well and good, but we have so much to learn from others.
I suppose the most successful example of brand building by a country was Australia’s effort to advance Australian wine overseas.
They were, in fact, too successful. Deep discounting and too much concentration on global brands in the search of volume eventually damaged the core brand. They are now refocusing on regionality and quality.
The success of Australian wine can be mirrored by Chile, South Africa and Argentina.
However, these are massive wine-producing countries. A better comparison for Israel may be found in New Zealand. We can also learn from two good examples closer to home.
Wines of Turkey was established in 2008.
It is managed by the dynamic Taner Ogutoglu, who by dogged determination and implementation of a focused marketing program, has managed to make Turkish wine relevant and of interest. He has used social media, an informative website and regular events to stress the variety of Turkey’s wine regions, their historical roots from the dawn of wine and their fascinating indigenous grape varieties. They have also organized visits to Turkey for wine writers and critics of the highest caliber.
Wines of Lebanon is another example, founded in 2010 by members of the Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL), which was established in 1997. Wines of Lebanon was set up initially to target the United Kingdom. The stated objective was to build on Lebanon’s image as a wine-producing country by highlighting its proud history and promoting its potential. They have done a road show of tastings, combining the expertise and intellectual humor of wine writer Michael Karam, Lebanon’s most well-known wine ambassador, usually alongside a famous local wine critic.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
Wines of Lebanon, skillfully managed by Madeleine Waters in the UK, scooped up the top award at the International Wine Challenge 2012 for the Generic Campaign of the Year. Lebanese wines have reached a whole new clientele as part of their efforts.
Something for Israel to learn from, I believe. If Turkey and Lebanon can do it, why can’t we? However, you know the saying – two Jews and three opinions. Let’s hope the egos involved in Israeli wine may combine in the future to advance the Israeli wine brand.Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about Israeli wine for international and Israeli publications. adam@ carmelwines.co.il